D.C. Blues Scene - Small but Vibrant

Kirk Jackson | 9/3/2009, 8:20 p.m.

By anyone€s measure, Bobby Parker is a blues icon.

He toured with Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly and played guitar for Bo Diddley. His 1961 hit, €Watch Your Step,€ inspired songs by British rockers, including John Lennon of The Beatles. The rock group Led Zeppelin once discussed signing him to their record label. And Carlos Santana recorded his own version of €Watch Your Step,€ later joining Parker for a concert that also featured blues legends Buddy Guy and Clarence Gatemouth Brown.

But his history and formidable guitar skills notwithstanding, Parker has found that, in the Washington, D.C. area, the life of a bluesman is not always easy.

€If you ask me from one to ten what number I would give the whole scenario, (I€d say) about a four, maybe a five,€ said Parker, who settled in the Washington area nearly 50 years ago. €When it€s good, it€s good; when it€s bad it€s terrible.€

Seen by many as the foundation of most American music, blues has not enjoyed the same national popularity as other types of music. It likely has even less of a following in D.C. than it does in Chicago or Memphis, cities with more of a blues tradition.

€I think there€s an appreciation among those who appreciate it,€ explained Anthony €Swamp Dog€ Clark, who plays harmonica for the Capital Blues Ensemble, a local band. €But the larger crowd is into smooth jazz or the Top 40 stuff.€

Still, though small in size, the Washington/Baltimore area€s blues community is €vibrant,€ Clark said, with bands like his performing at clubs such as Falls Church€s Bangkok Blues or the Old Bowie Town Grill in Bowie. Clubs also feature jam nights where amateur musicians can get a taste of the stage. The €weekend warriors€ usually perform two or three songs.
Memphis Gold Blues Band Photo by Victor Holt
Local blues supporters include members of the D.C. Blues Society, a volunteer organization that sponsors jams and organizes concerts, including a free all day festival of national acts held at the Carter Barron Amphitheatre every Labor Day weekend. Scheduled for Sept. 5, this year€s event will feature Billy Thompson and Friends, Michael Hill€s Blues Mob, Eddie Turner, Eugene €Hideaway€ Bridges and Teeny Tucker.

Still, despite all of this activity and enthusiasm from local fans, it seems difficult for a blues musician to make a living in the Washington area.

€Most of the blues bands in this area are not full-time musicians,€ explained Michael Lipman, owner of Missile Productions, a Baltimore-based music booking agency. €If they had to live on just that money they would be hungry, most of them have day jobs and playing music is almost a hobby.€

Today€s tough economy makes things worse, said Cathy Ponton King, a Washington born blues guitarist and band leader who over the years has opened for Albert King, James Cotton and Koko Taylor. €When people are losing their jobs their car payment is going to get paid but they€ll do without the night out,€ she said.

Parker, who recently collaborated with go-go musician Chuck Brown for a concert and has a regular gig playing the last Saturday of the month at Madam€s Organ in Washington, said his €money was really great€ until the mid-90€s, when he was €blackballed€ from local clubs after showing up late for a gig at the Birchmere, a northern Virginia club.

Parker said his lateness was unavoidable because he didn€t have the buses or vans he needed to transport his band and equipment. He said he did not even want the gig; he was signed up for it against his will by Joe Lee, owner of a Rockville record store.

€We decided to go and do that to save face with the world but we got there 30 to 40 minutes late,€ said Parker, who recalled finally making the trip in taxicabs and in a pick-up truck Lee had loaned him. €I€m sure other groups have shown up late but they decided to stick it to me.€

Lee, who said he had managed Parker for about two years in the early 1990€s, denied going behind Parker€s back. He had notified Parker weeks beforehand, he said, adding that he called the musician five times the day of the show. €He wanted to do the gig, come on, a thousand bucks, are you kidding me?€ Lee said. He also said he had allowed Parker to use his vehicle free of charge for a year.

Michael Jaworek, who was in charge of booking at the Birchmere, denied starting a €blackball€ of Parker. €I have not discussed Bobby with any kind of club owners or promoters,€ he said.

Another guitar player with a national reputation, Chester Chandler, returned to the Washington area in 1991 after living here during a previous stint with the Navy. Also known as Memphis Gold, Chandler was homeless for about 18 months after arriving. But his fortunes began to change after he used money he had earned through landscaping and yard work to buy a guitar from a pawn shop.

After playing regularly at a local club, Chandler became a full-time musician to tour with singer/guitarist Deborah Coleman.

In the mid-1990€s he formed his own band, and his p prosperity continued. But the club work has slowed over the last five or six years as less seasoned musician starting off at local jams come together, form bands and are hired by club owners seeking to avoid the cost of hiring professional musicians.

€They play for nothing,€ Chandler said. €It€s crazy. They get all of the gigs and all of a sudden they are the stars.€

Both Parker and Chandler believe that black musicians €get the crumbs on the plate.€ €And we€re playing the real deal,€ Chandler said.

DC Blues Society President Felix McClairen, who is black, agreed that the industry is controlled by whites but added he would like see more blacks take an interest in the blues. €The bourgeois nature€ of Washington€s black community has fostered the idea among blacks that blues is backwards and €belongs in slavery days,€ he said.

Chett Hines, who manages the D.C. Blues Society€s €Blues in the Schools€ program, said area youth also feel blues is backwards. Hines, whose program uses concerts and class presentations to teach youngsters about the music, recalled one session in which he played €Saturday Night Fish Fry,€ a 1940€s song later recorded by Chuck Brown.

€They go, €they were groovin€ that way back then?€ € he said.